Tag: book reviews

Review – The Border Keeper

Posted July 12, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Border Keeper by Kerstin HallThe Border Keeper, Kerstin Hall

Received to review via Netgalley

The Border Keeper lives on the border of the land of the dead, mostly alone, mostly untroubled by people and not taking any trouble about them. Vasethe comes to her house and, by virtue of mostly just being annoying enough to keep her attention, eventually goes inside and has the Border Keeper, a woman he calls Eris, take him into the lands of the dead. There’s a lot of beauty in this book, and grotesquerie as well, in the descriptions of their journey through Mkalis. There are some interesting worlds that they pass through, with their own very specific rules, and lots of fascinating stuff going on… But.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid this book didn’t really work for me. I felt like I never quite knew where it was going, and like I was missing a lot of cues. Maybe I was! Maybe the cues were there and I just wasn’t catching hold of them; it’s entirely likely. But for me it just never caught hold, and I read the whole thing feeling as if I was skimming off the surface instead of getting involved and really getting interested. It’s not that the rules of the story made no sense — I think it’s intentionally prone to taking a left turn and leaving you going, ‘wait, what now?’ But that didn’t work for me, in this instance. It didn’t come together for me at all.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Artificial Condition

Posted July 11, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Artificial Condition by Martha WellsArtificial Condition, Martha Wells

Artificial Condition might be my favourite book of the quartet so far on this reread (though I haven’t read the last book yet). It features ART, Asshole Research Transport (so-called by Murderbot), and the interactions between the two are just a delight. Murderbot stows away on ART, only to find that the intelligence controlling the ship is far greater than usual, and very curious about Murderbot, its motives, and where its going. With ART’s help, Murderbot disguises itself to look a little more human, and even ends up with a human job as a security consultant, which it naturally takes very seriously. Protecting humans, after all, seems to come naturally — as long as Murderbot can snark about them being idiots to itself in private, at least.

Really, my favourite parts are the way ART and Murderbot interact when they’re alone, the tentative trust between them, and of course the fact that they watch Netflix and pretend not to have feelings about it. The part where Murderbot is actually figuring out its past and helping the humans from the team it works as a security consultant for is a bit secondary, though ART does add commentary and help throughout.

I really do hope we see more of ART (and understand some of the mysteries around ART, because really, why is that AI so independent and well armed?). I do enjoy the episodic nature of these novellas, but I’m also looking forward to the idea of an actual Murderbot novel with more room in it to roll around in.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Lifelode

Posted July 9, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Lifelode by Jo WaltonLifelode, Jo Walton

Lifelode is a mostly domestic fantasy: the central character (for the most part) is Taveth, a woman whose lifelode (chosen purpose in life would be a simple way of “translating” that) is taking care of the home. There are lifechanging things for the characters of the book, but Taveth is usually making the bread or washing the clothes or cleaning out the bedrooms when it happens. When there’s an attacking force, she’s the one who worries about the supplies; as people storm the gates, she’s making stew and figuring out what will keep the children happy.

Arguably the other central characters are Hanethe and Jankin, but they aren’t really the emotional heart of the story: they’re the movement that stirs the whole pond, but Taveth is the core of it all, what holds it together. It’s tempting to talk about the plot and say too much about the way Hanethe is being pursued, the cause of the problems that she stirs up, but really the key to this book is the domesticity and also — to me, at least — that concept of a lifelode. Something that you not only intend to spend your life doing, but which to me gives you more life. You can pour everything you have into doing it, and it repays you tenfold.

When I first read this, I was 21, and I don’t think the idea resonated with me so much. I would’ve been towards the end of my first degree, and planning a fairly straightforward track through academia. At 29, with another two degrees behind me and eagerly looking forward to the next, it’s clear English Literature was not my lifelode, but just a part of it. Really, what gives me joy and feels like my real work is finding out more, about all kinds of things. Not just with the degrees, but with everything I read and do and talk about. It’s such a powerful concept, and probably not enough of us in this world think about finding our lifelode and making it work — and I’m glad I picked this book up again now and got to have a think about that, and about what I’m willing to do to keep pushing through and doing what I love.

There are also other lovely things about this book — the domestic detail, the casual queerness (including asexuality), and yes, the magic and the actual plot, and the structure of the narrative. But really this time what stuck with me and resonated with me was that idea of a lifelode. I’m really very curious as to why I never seem to have thought about it the first time I read it, but then, I know I hadn’t figured out yet that there was no straight track through to an obvious career that was going to satisfy me!

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Revenant Gun

Posted July 8, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha LeeRevenant Gun, Yoon Ha Lee

I don’t know how to review this book! The first thing to say is that it’s a beautiful conclusion to some of the character arcs and questions, while leaving a big wide universe full of questions, and a history full of things to unpick as well. I’m sure I won’t understand everything until I read it again, and I could probably benefit from reading it again right away. So many things answered, so many new questions… gah!

It’s hard to give a precis of this book since it’s so strongly following the first two, so I won’t try. I definitely don’t recommend it as any kind of starting point: I think that would be a miserable idea, and unnecessarily annoying to anyone who could just pick up Ninefox Gambit and start there. It continues to make me feel in ways I don’t expect, to surprise me in how things work out while making them feel perfectly in tune, and it continues to have dozens of small moments that delight me — witness my expression when it mentions that Mikodez crochets, for instance.

It’s also delightfully queer, both in gender roles and in sexual roles, and it’s a delight that it’s so brazen about that. There are no apologies.

I enjoyed it greatly, and if it isn’t my vote for Best Novel in the Hugos I’ll be surprised; I will also give this my vote for Best Series. It’s not that it has no flaws, but if I tried to name them I couldn’t right now; I enjoyed it fully, and am glad I read it.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Just City

Posted July 7, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Just City by Jo WaltonThe Just City, Jo Walton

This whole novel is a bit of a thought experiment about people enacting a thought experiment: what would happen if people travelled through time to make Plato’s thought experiment of the Republic real, with the help of the Greek goddess Athene, the participation of her brother Apollo, and the addition of robots to do the hard work. There are multiple points of view: Maia, one of the readers of The Republic who comes to the city to found it; Simmea, one of the 10-year-olds recruited to be the first generation raised in the Republic; and Pytheas, the god Apollo incarnate in human form as another of those children. Those three perspectives together give us the City, from start to… well. The end of the book.

It’s really fascinating reading about the arguments for setting up the Republic, the way the Masters (Maia’s generation) interact and react to each other — because of course, very few people read The Republic and think that Plato’s suggestions should be implemented exactly as he says, but most people disagree on what things are right. And Walton has fun with who might plausibly be part of setting up the Republic: Pico della Mirandola, Ficino, Lucrezia Borgia… along with other people real and fictional.

(It’s especially fun going back to this after reading Lent, and seeing two different…ish takes on Pico!)

It’s also fascinating following Simmea and Pytheas, seeing the way they pursue excellence not only for themselves but for each other. If there’s an ideal love affair in fiction, this might be it: while there are physical elements to their relationship (more implied in the second book than actually seen here), that’s not the basis of their love for each other, and they’re never static. Right to the end, they’re always pushing at each other, demanding excellence of one another, and it’s lovely.

And then of course there’s Sokrates, brought into the City in its fifth year. With him comes change: greater freedom for Simmea and others like her who are deemed to be ‘golds’, or budding philosophers, and greater questioning of what Plato meant, what will work, and of almost every assumption the Republic has been founded on. I’d have loved to see more of Crocus and the other robots and their developing intelligence and sense of self.

Really, I could delve into several different aspects of The Just City, have it all in much greater detail, and be pretty happy.

Before writing this review, I deliberately refused to look back at what I thought when I first read it until I finished writing this. It’s… a quite different review, from a different me, and probably also worth reading; I still agree with it, but I experienced the book differently this time!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Ninth Rain

Posted July 5, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of The Ninth Rain by Jen WilliamsThe Ninth Rain, Jen Williams

I put off writing this review to try and sort it out in my head, and not just lean on what I already said in the readalong posts about it, but I’m not sure that’s served me well — especially since I read the sequel in the meantime! But let’s see what I can do. The Ninth Rain is a fantasy novel that reminds me a lot in some ways of sci-fi and horror; in fact, it reminds me a lot of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. It’s a human world, but one that’s full of strange flora and fauna wiped by the remnants that a mysterious attacking force, the Jure’lia, leave behind them. In this world, we follow Hestillion and her brother Tor, a scholar named Vintage (“Lady Vincenza de Grazon”, actually, but she doesn’t stand on ceremony), and a young witch who wields fire fuelled by energy ripped from living things.

Hestillion and Tor are not quite human: they are Eborans, formerly sustained in long, healthy, beautiful lives by the sap of their tree-god Ygseril. But he’s been silent and dormant for years, leaving the Eborans at a loss — though they did find that human blood makes a substitute for the sap, leading to monstrous barbarism, and later prejudice. Tor’s not like that: he’s only interested in blood given willingly, and probably during sex. I find it interesting that he’s one sort of vampire, but arguably the witch, Noon, is an energy-vampire. They’re both pretty prejudiced and awful to each other about what they are, when their paths cross, but really they’re neither better than the other.

Vintage is mostly just a delight. Older than the others, and sure of what she wants, she is passionate about the remains of the Jure’lia and finding out what exactly is going on with them. Naturally, this steers a course straight into trouble, bringing Noon and Tor along for the ride.

Noon herself… is not really a favourite for me. She’s damaged and desperate, and horrible things have happened to her, but I don’t find her motivations as interesting as Vintage’s. Vintage has this scientific curiosity that really appeals. Tor’s alright as well, and I’m entertained by the female gaziness of the descriptions of him, but I don’t adore him.

Hestillion, though… she’s so clever and so manipulative; she’s both a horror and a delight, because you need to know what she’s going to do but ai, you wish she wouldn’t do it. That’s more or less what this whole book does: it’s an awesome ride, and it does some awesome things, but they’re also awful and whyyy do they have to happen.

It’s immensely satisfying — like filling up on a good meal.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Extraordinary Insects

Posted July 4, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Extraordinary Insects by Anne Sverdrup-ThygesonExtraordinary Insects, Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson

I am not, as most people know, a fan of insects. In fact, there was a time not long ago when the mere thought of insects practically made me hyperventilate, and I’d still appreciate if they could keep their creepy little feet well away from me. But there’s always a world of things to know, and actual knowledge helps to replace instinctive fear, so I’ve been reading around somewhat, now and then, just as I did with deadly diseases. It’s kind of helping.

Anyway, Extraordinary Insects has some interesting titbits, it’s true. A lot wasn’t surprising to me — I have a biology degree, I think we can take it as read that I can grasp taxonomy — but there were some interesting facts. It was just… kind of thin, in the end; there were a couple of eyebrow-raising points where I quibbled with the facts as presented*, but the most part it was just a moderately entertaining, quick read, suitable for a layperson but not for anyone looking for depth. (Which is a big ask from popular science, perhaps, but I know plenty of popular science books that have been satisfying to me!)

(*For example, she claimed that binomial species names are always, invariably, in Latin. They are not. Many contain Greek as well, not to mention those that contain names.)

So in the end, fairly ambivalent. Meh.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – A Natural History of Dragons

Posted July 2, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of A Natural History of Dragons by Marie BrennanA Natural History of Dragons, Marie Brennan

I thought I’d read this more recently, but apparently not since 2016? It’s surprising how fresh it all stayed in my mind, really! This is one of my favourite series, I think, and there’s so many reasons why.

Reason one: Isabella. She’s far from perfect as a person — she’s prone to speaking before she thinks, thinking badly of people, thinking herself above people — but she also grows throughout the books (learning that her colonialist assumptions are just that, for instance). From the start, she has a thirst for knowledge, and a commitment to science; to finding out the truth and sharing it, while doing her best to be ethical and deal fairly with the people she meets.

Reason two: the science. It’s dragons, but it’s also a Victorian naturalist going through proper scientific process. Making a hypothesis and testing it. In this book in particular, I laughed because she called out bad statistical analysis in her younger self, pointing out that the cry that “it can’t be coincidence!” is really… not how science is done, and it could be coincidence.

Reason three: the dragons, of course.

There are other reasons to love the series, though they mostly come in the later books. I do enjoy the romance between Jacob and Isabella; I think I’ve gained in appreciation for it since I first read the book. It feels necessary to shaping who Isabella is, what she believes, what she’s later able to do.

When I first read the book, I worried a little that it would set up a kind of pattern: Isabella goes to research dragons, stuff happens, she returns home to prepare to do it again. But it’s better than that: you can follow genuine scientific progress through the series, as Isabella slowly starts to piece things together, and there have been hints all along. It’s great. I do recommend these books so much.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Afterward

Posted June 30, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Afterward by E. K. JohnsonThe Afterward, E.K. Johnston

When I read this, I more or less straightaway gave it to my sister. It’s light, sweet, and very easy to read — though it has some Moments, certainly. The basic premise is that it follows a group of knights, and one thief, who have returned from a fairly traditional fantasy quest. This is after everything’s gone down (mostly), and the story is shaped instead around the social conditions. For example, the fact that becoming a knight is so expensive that many knights get themselves set up and then have to go off and have an arranged marriage to pay for it all. Or the fact that after the end, there’s not much for a thief to do except go back to thieving.

It turns out, of course, that it wasn’t quite the end — there’s still something that needs doing. The thief Olsa ends up wrapped up in that, while the knight she fell in love with during the quest — Kalanthe — gets busy on that whole getting married thing. I’m going to say a spoiler now, so look away if you don’t want to hear it: there’s a happy ending. And that’s great, because we need lady knights and the lady thieves that love them and their happy endings, because gosh the world can be awful, and especially for ladies who love ladies.

There’s also other representation too, from the cover on down — a tutorial from one character to another in how best to deal with their tangled, tightly-curled hair, for example; a trans knight… If I recall rightly, there’s also an asexual character.

It’s a little piece of happy fluff, though there is a little bit of angst and longing in the middle, and a couple of genuinely painful and poignant moments. But mostly, it’s a feel-good book — not something Deep and Meaningful, except insofar as life and the bonds between people ever are Deep and Meaningful (which of course they are, but I’m digressing) — and I am so glad I got to give it to my sister.

(Who is not a teen anymore, of course, and I wish I could go back in time and give it to her as a teen, but I can’t. She can have it now, though.)

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Sunshine

Posted June 28, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Sunshine by Robin McKinleySunshine, Robin McKinley

This was one of my favourite books when I was in my mid-teens, and I was very curious to see how I found it this time. Sunshine is a fairly ordinary woman, or so it seems, working as a baker at her family’s cafe, ducking out on family night because she’s restless. It takes a while for the post-apocalyptic, alternative world to become fully apparent: this is a world of supernatural creatures, magic-users, wards, and cops who are out to stake vampires and deal with any threats from the Others. Part of that sinks in because Sunshine is very quickly kidnapped by vampires, of course, but the rest of it trickles through in a fairly organic way.

Kidnapped by vampires? Oh yes. At the very start of the book, Sunshine finds herself kidnapped and taken to an old abandoned house, near a ‘bad spot’, where a chained vampire waits. Of course, she expects to be dinner immediately — that’s what humans expect from vampires — but it doesn’t quite work that way, and she finds herself drawn into an odd alliance with a creature who should be a mortal enemy. It feels beautifully done — their odd reliance on each other, while they still don’t fully understand or perhaps trust each other.

And of course, Sunshine isn’t actually just a normal woman. Her magic is based on sunlight, and it’s been growing within her silently since she was a child. Her escape with the vampire Con is just the beginning.

I really enjoy that Sunshine isn’t very heroic. She’s scared and she wants to bury her head in the sand. Deeply. She wants to knead bread and bake cakes and feed people, mostly, and having to be a hero and hang out with vampires is an unfortunate roadblock. She doesn’t want to use her magic, though she fears not being able to. She’s not brave, she’s just doing what she has to, step by step. She could be all gungho and ready to slay, but we have plenty of women like that in fiction now. One who is a baker and also a reluctant badass is a little bit different.

There’s so much untold about this world, so much I’d love to know. Mel’s background. What happened during the wars. What happened before. What happened to Sunshine’s father, and Sunshine’s grandmother. More about the cops with whom Sunshine has a fragile alliance. More about other types of magic user, more about Yolande, more about what happens to Sunshine and to Con…

But at the same time, there’s something rather enjoyable about the fact that it’s a one-and-done (thus far). You can imagine so much for yourself, and you never have to be disappointed. There’s so much potential.

Rating: 4/5

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